Returning to school after lockdown: How to help with anxiety, according to a psychologist

Jill Foster
·5-min read
'Back to school anxiety' is common even in a normal year, so it's understandable children may be feeling worried ahead of sschools reopening. (posed by models, Getty)
'Back to school anxiety' is common even in a normal year, so it's understandable children may be feeling worried ahead of sschools reopening. (posed by models, Getty)

They have spent at least six months away from the classroom over the last year, unable to have face-to-face time with their teachers, mix with friends or take part in extracurricular activities such as sport and music.

So as millions of children prepare to return to school on 8 March after the third – and hopefully final - pandemic lockdown, the relief amongst families is palpable.

But amid all the excitement is also the concern that some children are not quite ready to return. Charities including Barnardo's and Childline are offering advice for "back to school anxiety" as some pupils admit they are nervous about what lies ahead.

"It’s natural for some children to feel worried about returning to school even in a normal year so it’s perfectly understandable why they may feel anxious after the past year," says child and adolescent clinical psychologist Dr Melanie Smart.

Read more: Here's how to help a young person struggling with anxiety

Watch: All school pupils in England to return from 8 March

"Since the start of the pandemic I have seen an overall increase in anxiety in children, with many showing obsessive behaviours and thoughts around germs, illness and death," she continues. "Thankfully, these have subsided a little as the year has gone by.

"But now the worries are about returning to school. Some children say they are not sleeping well, some are ruminating and worrying about long term issues such as academic success and what will happen with friendship groups.

"Pupils as young as eight or nine are expressing anxiety. Some have developed eating difficulties or fixations on computer games or activities – a way of escaping what’s happening or having some control over their lives."

Since the start of the pandemic, child and adolescent clinical psychologist Dr Melanie Smart, has seen an increase in anxiety in children. (Supplied: Melanie Smart)
Since the start of the pandemic, child and adolescent clinical psychologist Dr Melanie Smart, has seen an increase in anxiety in children. (Supplied: Melanie Smart)

So what can parents do to help their children readjust to life back at school?

"It’s essential to get back into a routine," says Dr Smart. "Over lockdown many people’s sleeping patterns have been affected and it’s the same with children. I’m seeing clients who either can’t sleep, have problems dropping off or who are sleeping too much. There has been an increase in sleep walking and talking too.

"Over the next few days, help your child to return to the bedtime routine you had before lockdown with cues such as dinner and bathtime for younger children and setting the same time for bed.

Read more: Teenage girls see sharp decline in wellbeing compared with boys

"For teenagers, encourage good sleeping habits such as not looking at screens before bedtime and going to bed and waking around the same time, getting dressed first thing and eating a proper breakfast.

"Prepare them practically for returning to school. Make sure their projects are finished so they don’t feel ‘left behind’. Check that uniform and shoes fit and speak to other parents and the school about what they are planning for the return."

Watch: Education union leader reacts to schools reopening.

One of the main worries for some children is how friendships will have been affected by the separation.

"Many have had very little contact with friends and some are scared about cliques forming and whether friends will be in their ‘bubbles’ or not," says Dr Smart.

"Try to arrange a little onscreen contact with some friends and set a plan for the first day. I have one young person who has arranged to meet a friend on the same bus on the first morning and others who will meet up at the school gate so they’re not facing the return ‘alone’."

Read more: Telling children fibs could make them more anxious in later life

Experts also suggest that parents should open up discussions about the school return if they think their child is anxious.

"You can never plant anxiety in a child if it’s not already there," says Dr Smart.

"Ask them how they are feeling about returning to school and if they’re a little anxious, tell them how perfectly normal that is and how you would be anxious about going back to work after such a long time too. The younger the child, the more they will think that what they are feeling is unique to them and no one has ever felt it before."

Dr Smart advises that meeting a friend before starting classes can help ease anxiety (posed by models, Getty)
Dr Smart advises that meeting a friend before starting classes can help ease anxiety (posed by models, Getty)

For younger children "separation anxiety" from parents is another issue.

"There are two forms – going to the destination you’re nervous about and leaving the environment you feel safe in," says Dr Smart.

"I’m seeing anticipatory anxiety from younger ones who worry that their teacher won’t ‘get them’ like mummy or daddy does and they also worry that their parents’ world at home will suddenly ‘change or collapse’ if the child is not there anymore.

"This may be especially strong if they’ve suffered a bereavement over lockdown and suddenly someone they loved simply ‘wasn’t there’ anymore. Reassure them that you will be absolutely fine while they’re at school and nothing will have changed when they get home.

"Rituals such as drawing a matching smiley face on your hand and theirs before they go into class and promising you’ll look at them if you’re missing each other or giving them something that reminds them of you – such as a hair clip – can be helpful too."

Watch: PM admits we ‘have to do more’ to help schoolchildren

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